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24-Year-Old Gets 3 Life Terms in Prison for Witnessing a Drug Deal: The Ugly Truth of Mandatory Drug Sentencing

Clarence Aaron is serving three life terms for a small-time college cocaine deal, another victim of heinous mandatory drug sentencing laws.

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I should know. Like Clarence Aaron, I have been in prison for almost 19 years. I was locked up at the age of 22 for a first-time, non-violent offense and received a sentence of 25 years and four months for selling LSD and marijuana at East Coast colleges. When I was busted, my first move was probably not a smart one: I ran. Then I faked my suicide on the banks of the Potomac River and took to the ground. The US Marshal Service put me on its Top 15 Most Wanted fugitive list, even though I never carried a weapon or committed an act of violence. I was captured in October 1993, and have been incarcerated ever since, living my life inside the industrial prison complex, hoping that some law or proposal will change the circumstances of my imprisonment and allow me a chance at freedom.

That's probably not going to happen. Instead, now I'm looking forward to my scheduled release in 2015.
The fact is, I never applied for executive clemency, though I've done everything I can to rehabilitate myself. I have earned my Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees through college correspondence courses, and I managed to sustain a lasting relationship (I married my longtime girlfriend). I've written several hundred articles for magazines, websites and journals on prison life and on the people that I have met here.

Here's the real reason I have never applied for executive clemency: unlike Clarence Aaron, I actively sold drugs. I was only a small-time college drug dealer, but if Aaron can't get his sentence commuted, what chance do I stand? No matter what sort of success I have in prison, it's still in prison. We are judged differently.

Michael Santos says, "The type of clemency for which I am applying is called a commutation of sentence. The commutation petition differs from a pardon in that I am asking President Obama to forgive the remainder of my sentence. I am not asking him to forgive the crime for which I am convicted." And that would mean a lot for those of us who have been in for multiple decades as a result of the "War on Drugs." Don't forgive the crime we committed, but let us come home to our families and let us resume our lives.

While campaigning for office, President Obama was critical of the mandatory minimum drug penalties, and talked about second chances. Yet he is on track to be the least forgiving President in US history. He has pardoned just 23 people, including one commuted sentence. His current pace puts him firmly among the most conservative American Presidents to use these powers. So much for second chances.

Maybe Obama will do an about-face and charge his Pardon Attorney with the responsibility of taking these clemency requests seriously, instead of denying them summarily, as has been reported. He should be seeking out cases like Clarence Aaron, Michael Santos and even me. This will show that Americans and our government are concerned about righting wrongs and that they have the capability to show compassion to those who deserve it or have earned it.


Seth Ferranti is serving 25 years for drug trafficking. This is his first column for The Fix. To learn more about prisoners who are working hard at a commutation, check out straight-a-guide.com. for more of Ferranti's writings, go to gorillaconvict.com.

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